Category Archives: Including details in writing

Hurricanes Irma and Harvey: exciting writing topics

Students love to talk about current events.  But usually their ideas lack facts—high on “Well, I heard” but low on hard facts.

Here’s a way to give them the facts on Hurricane Irma or Hurricane Harvey—the geography, the science, even the math.

Order* “Hurricane Irma (or Harvey):  storm graphing, tracking and analyzing.”  With the information provided, students will be able to

  • Plot the latitude and longitude of Irma (or Harvey) on their own maps. Then they can use that data to write about the day-to-day path the hurricane took, where it crossed land, and where it went next (or where it stalled, in Harvey’s case).  This essay would be heavy on geography—what Caribbean islands the storm passed, what waters it passed through, what states, cities or counties were involved.
  • Create bar graphs of the lowest barometric pressure and the highest wind speed of either hurricane. Then students can compare the two graphs and notice how higher wind speed correlates with lower air pressure and with Saffir-Simpson categories.  Numbers are details, and with two graphs plus the Saffir-Simpson chart, the students would have plenty of details to write an essay heavy on science and math.
  • For a comparison/contrast essay, students could interpret a chart comparing Hurricane Katrina to Hurricane Harvey. Plenty of facts describe both storms.
  • Or for an expository essay, students could write an essay explaining why Hurricane Harvey was so destructive. All the information is provided.  Students could use this same information to paraphrase one paragraph or several.
  • A different expository essay could focus on why hurricanes form and strengthen, using scientific facts about Hurricane Irma. A shorter writing assignment using the same facts could be a summary or a paraphrase of a single paragraph.
  • What makes for an accurate forecast of a hurricane’s landfall location could be another expository essay, focusing on why meteorologists had trouble pinpointing the landfall location of Irma. All the information is provided.  Or a paragraph or two could be paraphrased.  Or the ideas could be summarized.

I wrote the lesson plans and gathered the facts, focusing on activities appropriate for fifth through eighth graders.

*To check out one or both lessons, click on Irma or Harvey.  The cost is $5 each.

If it matters, put it last

When most people talk, they make their point, pause, reconsider it, and add a bit more.  They ramble.  For example,

  • I went to the store this morning, and bought some coffee, but not my usual brand–they were out of that–but you know, I am glad I  did because I like the new brand better.

But when good writers write, they consider their sentence structure carefully, naming their most important information last for emphasis.  For example,

  • Grandpa watched the fly flit from lamp to chair to table, chuckling as the curious insect enjoyed a balmy summer flight before Grandpa smashed it dead.

If you write a compound sentence, with clauses connected by the coordinating conjunction “and,” you lose the opportunity for most end of sentence emphasis.  That is because “and” connects clauses of equal weight.  Even so, whatever is said in the second clause gains a slight weight just because it comes last.

If you change the “and” to “but,” a stronger end of sentence emphasis emerges.  That is because a clause after the conjunction “but”  either qualifies or contradicts the previous clause, thereby having the final word.  For example,

  • I ate the sandwich Mom prepared, but first I removed the cheese.

If you write a complex sentence, you write an independent clause and a dependent (subordinate clause).  The information in the independent clause is always more significant because an independent clause is more significant than a dependent clause.  Even so, whichever clause is written last in the sentence gains additional emphasis simply because it comes last.

Abraham Lincoln used this end-of-sentence emphasis to his advantage when he wrote his “Gettysburg Address.”  His uppermost thought throughout the speech was that the the US democracy must survive.  Notice how he emphasizes this thought in the last few words of his last sentence:

  • “. . .that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

Many poems place great emphasis on the last words.  Notice how important–and thought provoking–is the emphasis on the last word in “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost.

  • Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
    I took the one less traveled by,
    And that has made all the difference.

Jane Austen’s opening sentence in Pride and Prejudice, like the punchline of so many jokes, uses the last word for irony and humor:

  • It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

To write better, consider your point and make it the last word.

How to encourage primary school students to write better

If you are helping a student in kindergarten through second grade to learn how to write, you might want to check out Conferring with Young Writers  by K. Ackerman and J. McDonough.

ConferringWithYoungWritersThese primary grade teachers decided that they could have the most impact by changing the way they conference with student writers.  Here are some of their tips.

Establish trust with the student before trying anything else. How?  Let students see you writing and encountering problems.  Focus on the meaning of the child’s words and ignore sloppy spelling and punctuation.  Compliment students on their writing, focusing on particular things they do well.  Listen when the child talks about the writing process.  Get to know students as whole people first and as students and writers second.

Establish a routine for writing—a set time and place with pencils sharp, erasers in reach and plenty of paper.

Focus on one writing goal per lesson or unit. The goals should include choosing good ideas, structuring the writing appropriately, using conventions properly, sticking to one main point, writing in a natural voice, and providing details.  Teach those goals, model them, practice them and discuss with students how they can do them better.

Follow up on the points which they should have shown in their writing. The book shows several assessment tables, rubrics, and checklists which can be adapted by parents or classroom teachers.

Encourage students to choose their own writing topics and genres. Students will be more engaged and cooperative if they have choices.

Let students know it is not only okay but good if they talk to one another about the process of writing. Encourage them to read their writing aloud as they work.

Help students find good ideas to write about. Deciding on topics is one of the hardest things for some children.  Conferring with Young Writers offers several approaches to helping students identify what they might enjoy writing about.

Conferring with Young Writers offers a three page bibliography of books about teaching writing to children as well as an index.  At 144 pages, it is a quick but rich read for parents and teachers who don’t know how to begin teaching writing to primary grade students.  For more information, go to http://www.stenhouse.com.

Peer evaluation of writing

Is it worth taking time to let students evaluate others’ writing?

Recently I asked second graders to write stories based on the picture book, Flora and the Penguin by Molly Idle.  Since the book is wordless, the students were forced to write their own versions of the story relying not on the author’s words but rather on the illustrations for guidance.

Later, I selected portions of two students’ stories for comparison.  I typed and printed them side by side, so students could compare how the two students wrote the same parts of the story.

Here are some of the comments students (second through eighth grade) made:

  • I like Student One’s opening because it tells when the story happens.
  • I like Student Two’s opening because it names the girl.
  • I like the word “poked” by Student One because it shows exactly how the penguin acted.
  • I like all the ways Student Two shows what Flora and the penguin did. They skated, danced, jumped, twirled and slid.  You can see it happening.
  • I like the dialog that Student Two uses when Flora asks, “What are you doing?”
  • I like Student One’s word, “outraged.”  That is a strong word.
  • I like Student Two’s word, word “disgusted” because it shows how Flora felt.
  • I like Student One’s writing where it says that Flora feels sorry because it shows that Flora cares.
  • I like when Student Two says “just like a fishing net.” I can see it.
  • I like when Student Two says “they tugged and tugged,” but maybe there are too many “tugs.”
  • I like Student One’s ending because it says Flora and the Penguin are happy.

After their blow-by-blow analyses, I asked my students what they learned from evaluating other students’ writing.  They said:

  • Use details, lots of details.
  • Use dialog or thoughts.
  • Use names.
  • Show emotions of the characters.
  • Verbs are really important to show action.
  • Use good vocabulary words.

One second grader, who rushes through her writing, compared her  plain version with the two shown here and said, “I’m starting over.”

A seventh grader who read the two versions, said, “Second graders?  Really?  I didn’t think I could learn good ideas about how to write from second graders.”

Is peer evaluation of writing a good idea?  You decide.

The new SAT writing essay is an improvement

Big changes have come to the SAT essay.

  • It’s optional, not required any more.
  • You have 50 minutes, not 25, to complete it.
  • It’s based on a reading passage, not an out-of-the-blue idea.
  • It will be judged on three criteria: your understanding of the reading passage, your ability to analyze the reading passage, and your writing skills.

It’s still not easy, but it’s certainly more like the writing students do in college.  Often college students need to read a book or a journal article and write a response to it.  Students need to show that they understand what the reading is about, that they can analyze the thinking that went into the passage, and that they can do so in clear, sophisticated English.  Rarely are college students ever offered a philosophical problem with no warning and no preparation, and rarely too are they asked to respond with an essay in one sitting.

The old, 25-minute limit was ridiculous.  Planning a response was reduced to three minutes; writing was limited to 20 minutes; and checking for errors lasted about two minutes, or more often, not at all.  When I work with students on writing anything we spend significant time on planning, developing details and ordering the paragraphs.  You can’t do that in three minutes.  And for most of the writing college students do they have overnight or longer to provide a response.  Good writers put their writing down, take a walk or a hot shower, and then return to the writing inspired.  At least with the new SAT there is breathing room.

Even though the reading selection might contain highfalutin vocabulary, you don’t need to understand every single word to get the gist of a reading selection and to analyze it.  The reading passage is long enough and contains enough persuasive arguments that the student can readily understand it with a strong high school vocabulary.

And the essay is optional.  For students who can write, this is their chance to prove it, adding another way to impress college admission officers.  For students who can’t write well, their lack of skill will show in the multiple choice section of the writing test.

Google the new SAT writing test to find websites offering greater perspective on the change.  See if you agree that the change has improved the test.

How to encourage the addition of more details by students

Sometimes students balk at writing more details when they have finished their first drafts.  They think they have already included plenty of details when more details would enhance the writing.

To encourage the student to write more details, on a separate piece of paper I rewrite one of the student’s sentences needing more details and suggest we go back and forth–first me, then the student–adding details.  Here are some examples.

The student originally writes, “We walked back to the pool.”  I add, “In our flipflops and bathing suits,” to the beginning of that sentence.  “Well, of course we wore our bathing suits,” says my student, so he crosses out “and our bathing suits.”  But he adds, “In our flipflops we walked to the outside pool entrance.

Another sentence the student originally writes is, “My cousin, Johnny, picked up a glass and cut his fingers.”  This time the student starts the additions by adding “soda” to “glass.”  I ask which fingers.  He crosses out “fingers” and adds “thumb and index finger.”  But then without my asking him to, he continues. “My cousin, Johnny, picked up a soda glass and cut his thumb and index fingers.  You could see the fat and blood.  My uncle drove him in a taxi to the hospital emergency room.  My uncle sent a picture to my aunt, showing Johnny doing a pose in his bandage.”  What a difference!

Another sentence my student writes is, “We walked to the gift shop.” Before I could add details, he added “to get rocky road ice cream because it was 100 degrees F.

Why did this exercise work?  By pulling the sentences out of the student’s own work and isolating them, it was easy for the student to see the plainness of the sentences.  By my offering to write some of the additional phrases, the work seemed more like a game, and he was willing to play along.

Were we working on a computer, we could have swiped the new sentences and replaced the plainer ones, making the work even easier.

 

I want my kids to write more this summer. Any ideas?

Yes.  First, I would let the children know that they will be writing every day this summer.  Give them time to get used to this idea.  And tell them you will be writing too.  Every assignment they do, you will do too.  Your commitment shows them how important you think writing is.

EPSON MFP image

Set up a schedule for writing time and stick to it.  Some kids think summer should be a completely unscheduled time.  Dispel this myth.  Let them know that at a certain hour every day they and you will write.

If the children have a computer or tablet available, let them use it.  This will make the idea of writing daily more palatable.  (But check to be sure they are writing and not surfing or gaming.)  Research shows writers write better when they use electronic equipment, perhaps because of the ease of erasing, moving around phrases and looking up synonyms and spelling.  If you have only one such device, stagger the writing times.

Since finding a topic to write about day after day will be a problem for your children, you decide on topics ahead of time.  You know your children’s interests and experiences.  You know what they have studied in school, what hobbies they enjoy, what trips they have taken.  These are excellent topics for writing.

Insist the children create some kind of prewriting organizer for each writing assignment.  Insist too that it be detailed.  Let the children know you want to see the organizers before they begin their first drafts, and that you will show them yours.  Monday’s writing assignment could be to develop such an organizer.  Together discuss the problems and benefits of creating an organizer.

Tuesday’s assignment could be writing the first draft.  Since knowing how to begin is often a problem, help your children.  Make suggestions to one another.  Let them help you too.  Let them see you as a learner in the writing process.  Prod the child to begin, even if the beginning isn’t great.  It can be improved later.  Allow errors and mediocrity at this point.  It’s better for the writer to get into a “flow” state of mind and to continue than to stop and start to fix errors.

Wednesday’s assignment could be to write a conclusion and to begin to revise.  If the child has trouble writing a conclusion, suggest possibilities.  Then, read aloud your draft and self-correct as you go along letting the child hear how it is done.  Ask each child to read aloud his or her draft, and let him fix the errors he hears.  Suggest places that are skimpy or confusing.  Insist that the children add more details, such as proper nouns, numbers, dates, sensory information, and for examples.

Thursday’s assignment could be to continue revising.  Identify verbs and strengthen them.  Identify sentence beginnings and vary them.  Identify lengths of sentences and vary them.  Older children could identify types of sentences used and vary them.   Final drafts should be completed and printed by the end of Thursday’s writing time, or if revision takes a long time, have the children prepare their final drafts at the beginning of Friday’s writing time.

Friday’s assignment could be to evaluate each piece of writing.  Use two columns marked “Did well” and “Needs improvement.”  Start with the “Did well” column, listing things the child did well, like sticking to one idea, organizing, adding humor, writing dialog, writing clearly, using capital letters—anything which will give the child confidence.  In the “Needs improvement” column, ask the child what he or she thinks needs improvement.  Maybe limit comments to the two areas the child thinks he needs to improve the most, such as run-on sentences, using direct quotes, spelling it’s and its or remembering to use periods.

On Friday also you could agree on Monday’s topic.  If the kids need to think about it or do research, they can do that over the weekend.  Let the children suggest topics.  The more they control the process, the more willing they will be  to participate.

Lastly, hang up the finished final printed drafts on the refrigerator or someplace where they can be admired.

(If you need information on any of these parts of the process, scroll back through these blogs.  Any blog might make a good mini-lesson.)